MANTECA — As far as James Warwick is concerned, he's trailing by one year but catching up fast.
Warwick, Modesto Christian's senior hurdler, made up for lost time Thursday at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4/5 Championships. His double in the 110 (14.46) and 300-meter hurdles (39.92), both impressive victories with room to spare, identify him as a contender next week at the Section Masters.
"I've caught up to last year," he said while he still ran in place, a precaution against a tightening hamstring. "I knew I could do it."
Warwick, a strapping 6-foot-2 with thick and chiseled legs, raced into tough luck last year. His junior season ended when he was forced to pull up during the 110s at the Trans Valley League Championships.
Surgery on his right knee in September, followed by a hamstring injury in January, kept him off schedule. Only now does he feel he's on the right pace.
"I'm a little faster now than last year," said Warwick, who reached Masters as a sophomore. "I feel better everyday."
Warwick's performance came just in time. Only the top five finishers, one fewer than 2012, advanced to Masters, the gathering of the section's best, next week at Elk Grove.
The D-4/5, staged for years at Modesto Junior College, was moved to Sierra High and was buffeted by brisk wind. Runners struggled to stay in their lanes in the back stretch, then braced for the headwind at the turn.
"Sierra is the Chicago of the Manteca schools," Sonora junior Steven Grolle said. "Really windy."
The gusts didn't bother Grolle, ranked second in the section in the 3,200. The gifted distance runner, third in the 1,600 meters at Masters last year, has geared for the longer race.
He scratched in both the 1,600 and the 800 on Thursday before he outclassed the field in the 3,200 with a 9:36.7. Starting nearly last, he used his long and seemingly effortless stride to rally into the lead within three laps.
"I wasn't tired today. I felt great," Grolle said. "It felt good picking people off one by one."
Sierra, the home team, checked in with a meet record in the 4x100 relay (42.20) featuring Jake Supinger, Emmanuel Elijah, Jordan Lewis and anchor Nchekube Uwakwe. Later, Elijah nipped Weston Ranch sophomore John McDonald at the tape in the 100 (11.04).
"I did to him today what he did to me at the Valley Oak League meet," Elijah said. "I had to catch him."
Manteca senior Phillip Herrera scored double wins in the 800 (1:57.63) and 1,600 (4:26.88). Other winners included Megan McWilliams of Patterson in the pole vault (9-5), Spencer Stark of Central Catholic in the shot put (52-10¾), Oakdale freshman Hannah Chappell in the discus (127-2) and Kyle Peterson of Oakdale in the discus (167-4).
Riverbank senior Melissa Garcia threw the shot put 37-1¾ to edge runner-up Tina Lao of Livingston and third-place Valerie Nestor of Sierra. The trio was separated by only about seven inches.
Garcia's victory keyed Riverbank's D-5 team title by 12 points over runner-up Modesto Christian.
The tight competition in the shot put paled, however, next to the drama surrounding Oakdale junior Dezirae Pennington. Top-seeded in the triple jump, she scratched her first two attempts in order to compete in the 300 hurdles.
Pennington led the race until she hit the final hurdle with her lead leg and stumbled to the synthetic surface while Chloe Jenkins of Kimball raced by for the win. Pennington, who finished sixth, sobbed afterward and received consolation applause from the rest of the field.
But she had unfinished business in the triple jump. She needed a solid leap just to qualify for the finals.
"Don't worry, I can jump," she told coaches as she gathered her emotions.
After one run-through, Pennington delivered the clutch effort and eventually recorded the best third-place performance of the meet.
Meanwhile, the Modesto Christian boys can thank Warwick for the 20 points that brought home the D-5 blue banner, emblematic of the section team title.